As a student of history, a background in international development, and a coffee lover – the story of Rwandan speciality coffee is inspiring. It’s the tale of people coming together and producing something wonderful. This Crown Jewel isn’t a cup of hope – it’s showcasing what it means to thrive.
I have always looked to Rwanda and Rwandan coffees as a statement for what the speciality coffee industry can provide – and this Crown Jewel is exemplary.
There is no way to talk about Rwandan coffee without talking about the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Rwanda boasts one of the youngest populations on the planet – by some estimates over 40% of the population has been born after the genocide. And since the end of that tragedy, Rwanda has enjoyed economic and political stability with exactly one executive in power – Paul Kagame. What happens to a nation when it has no living history and one leader for over 20 years? Let’s hope it brings a clean slate.
To help spur economic development, a number of agencies – both national and international – got to work immediately after the genocide to help this young nation move past its horrific tragedy. One of those organizations was USAID, which funded and operated the PEARL and SPREAD projects running between 2000 – 2006 and 2006-2011, respectively. A lot of development projects fail; but these didn’t. These two projects provided assistance to create cooperatives, access to credit, and obtain Fair Trade Certification all in the hopes of creating a dynamic specialty coffee industry.
One of the recipients of this project was the center of this Crown Jewel, the Dukunde Kawa cooperative, which was founded in 2003. Many years later, this predominantly female cooperative with nearly 2,000 members is still producing wonderful coffee – some of which regularly place in the Cup of Excellence. In addition to producing showstopping coffee, Dukunde Kawa won the SCAA Sustainability Award in partnership with Thanksgiving Coffee in 2012.
This cooperative would not exist without the funding from USAID, industry support from Fair Trade USA and other NGOs, countless market access partners who took a chance on Rwandan coffee at a time when the country needed something. I visited this group along with Sprudge in 2012 and it hit me – there is hope in the light of any darkness; Rwanda is living proof of that.
This coffee from Dukunde Kawa Cooperative is dry with low moisture, very low water activity, and of moderate density. In size, it has a wide distribution in the screens. The low moisture figures are an encouraging sign in coffees from this area of the world – Rwandan coffee harvests during the rainy season, so drying parchment is under constant threat of seasonal rains. Washing station employees must constantly be on the lookout for rainclouds and be ready at moment’s notice to cover the drying coffee with tarps.
Most Rwandan coffee farmers are still using older local Bourbon varieties distributed as long ago as the 1950s. The two most common of these are called Mbirizi and Jackson, and can be found widely distributed in Burundi as well. Rwandan farmers have access to fertilizer distribution through a government-authorized agency, but good agricultural training can sometimes be difficult to find in the countryside. Despite lower than average per-hectare yields, these coffee varieties tend to produce high sensory quality.
After a bitter fight with a dreaded sensory defect known as “potato,” the last several years, we’re seeing decreasing frequency of this troublesome hiccup in quality. Part of the problem, of course, is that the defect is practically undetectable until roasted, so it’s difficult to completely eliminate at the farm or washing station. However, pre-processing cherry flotation at the wet mill and extensive hand-sorting of drying parchment seem to be helping.
This coffee surprised me with its average density and low moisture content, but the real wild card is the extremely low water activity. Over the last couple of years I have developed a technique for high water activity coffees, but coffees with extremely low readings below 50 aW are not very common. I will want to keep my roast on the shorter side, with not much moisture to lose during the drying stage, I might see yellowing occur earlier on in the roast and with a lower density, first crack should be rather rapid and early. I will need to watch my heat so I don’t speed through post crack development time too quickly.
This week on the Ikawa I experimented with different airflow profiles. I roasted four batches with the same roast profile and only changed the fan speed. Roast one was Lateral, or no change. I left the airflow at 75% for the entire duration of the roast and through the cooling stage. Roast two had an ascending fan speed; the roast began at 65% and increased to 75% by the end of the roast. Roast three was a descending fan speed that started at 75% and decreased to 65% by the finish of the roast. Roast four I called the “V” pattern because it starts at 75% and decreases to 65% just after yellowing and then increases back to 75% by the end of the roast. All roasts were set at 75% fan speed for 2:30 minutes for the cooling cycle.
The most successful roast was the lateral roast which pushes hotter air at a higher fan speed for the duration of the roast and gives the coffee a bright clean acidity. While lower water activity coffees usually correlate to a low first crack temperature on the Probatino, the high fan speed setting on the Ikawa kept the heat passing through the roasting chamber with more bean agitation and less time to dwell. This delayed my first crack temperature and allowed for a longer Maillard stage giving this roast more balance than the others.
With all that we learned from the Ikawa roasts, we all enjoyed the brightness of this coffee as well as the sweetness. The profile seemed perfect for an “omni style” which is one that can be used for pour over as well as for single origin espresso. Because the Ikawa roasts are fan speed experiments and I do not have that ability on the Probatino, I knew that I would need to adjust my profile if I wanted to translate the flavors I enjoyed from the Ikawa.
To keep the bright and juicy acidity in the flavor profile I decided to limit my post crack development to 1:30 which is an additional 30 minutes in the drum more than I roast for a light and bright profile for a Rwandan coffee. I am a sucker for tart apricots, but if I wanted a killer omni roast then I needed to shoot for a caramelized apricot flavor for the right balance on the espresso machine. I did this by extending my time in the machine with a long drying phase, even though there was little moisture content in the coffee to begin with. This dry coffee would make quick work of the Maillard stage, and low water activity readings usually result in low first crack temperatures which would also decrease this stage in the roasting process. The end result was delicious and I was able to successfully transfer the sweet apricot notes along with black currant and a silky mouth
I have a soft spot for Rwandan coffees– they offer a sweetness almost entirely unique to this origin, creating incredibly versatile coffees, delicious across a spectrum of brew methods. To explore this versatility, I first brewed Jen’s roast as a pour over. It was easy to dial and drink, and the Kalita brewer brought out some sweet baked apple, dark honey, and burnt caramel sweetness.
Keeping this coffee’s flexibility in mind, I remembered how much I’ve enjoyed tasting Dukunde Kawa’s previous harvests on espresso. With less than a pound of this roast left, I bravely threw it in the hopper to dial in shots on our La Marzocco GS3, unsure of whether there would even be enough coffee to dial in a good shot let alone analyze it.
There was no need to fret. After a few minor adjustments, I found a great dial within just a handful of shots. Wanting to preserve the dark sugar complexities that had come through in the pour over method, I stuck to a 1:2 ratio for the espresso. The result was magical– cacao, spiced rum, pineapple, poached pear, and almond liqueur sang through a fudgy thick but very clean shot.